The French Revolution is considered as a watershed event in modern European History. It is also an important event with respect to the development of the discipline of Sociology; this will be discussed later. It began in 1789 and came to an end in the late 1790s, with Napoleon coming to power. During the French Revolution, the people destroyed and redesigned the political landscape. They did so by uprooting the institutions of absolute monarchy and feudalism. The major cause of this revolution was the widespread discontent with the French monarchy. King Louis XVI and his predecessor had indulged in extravagant spending, leaving the royal coffers empty and the country bankrupt. Additionally, his poor economic policies added to the widespread discontent. The Revolution also brought about violent bloodshed. However, it did not achieve its goals. But it played a critical role in shaping modern nations, demonstrating to the world the power in the will of the people. The purpose of this article is to apply the three paradigms- functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism- to the French Revolution and attempt to understand it from a sociological perspective.
One would like to start by briefly explaining the concept of functionalism. According to this perspective, society consists of various parts that “work together to produce stability and solidarity”; they work for the benefit of the whole. Now, when one looks at the French Revolution, one sees chaos and waves of change. So, how can one apply functionalism here? Perhaps, it can be applied in certain instances of the Revolution. For example, King Louis XVI’s controller general introduces a “reform financial package”; here the monarchy ‘part’ is working towards bringing about stability. Another instance could be the introduction of an assembly consisting of the country’s clergy, middle class and nobility; another attempt to bring about stability. Functionalism emphasized on the concept of moral consensus, people in the society share the same values and social equilibrium is found in moral consensus. Taking this concept into consideration, the people did share the same values, the same discontent towards the monarchy. Perhaps, one can look at the French Revolution, through the lens of functionalism, to see one ‘part’ of the society working towards bringing about a new stability, one that benefits the whole. Or, perhaps, functionalism cannot be applied to such a chaotic revolution as it is bad with dealing with change. Or, the above-mentioned application are interpretations of bad things having positive consequences (bloodshed bringing about a new political landscape, for instance).
Conflict Theory Perspective
Conflict Theory, on the other hand, acknowledges that there are divisions in society or different groups. These groups pursue their own interests but, the existence of these interests means that conflict can occur at any time. Those who subscribe to this perspective look into the tension between dominant and disadvantaged groups in a society. With respect to the French Revolution, there are two groups at play. One group consists of the nobility and the monarchy. The other consists of the clergy, middle classes and others who were affected by the monarchy. These groups also have their own separate interests. The former probably would like to stay in power, splurge on luxuries and oppress the people in order to do so. The latter, however and as stated earlier, is characterized by widespread discontent towards the monarchy and feudalism. The latter demanded for equal representation. These separate interests result in conflict and instances of violence and bloodshed. It is only when the French Revolution turns radical that the disadvantaged groups overthrow the monarchy. This paradigm is probably the most clear-cut one to apply to the French Revolution.
Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
Symbolic Interactionism, a micro-theory, looks at “society as a product of everyday social situations”. Its focus is on the shared reality that is created by people’s interactions. It is concerned with language and meaning. It is also concerned with symbols (for example, waving one’s hand at someone). People rely on such shared symbols and understandings when interacting with one another. So, looking at the French Revolution through the lens of symbolic interactionism would be like looking at it through a microscope. There would be a focus on the interactions people had and what were the shared symbols they relied on. Perhaps, certain symbols were used to signify something. For example, the fasces symbol stood for “strength through unity”. Music was used to “circulate political information and opinions”. Perhaps, clothes were used to communicate something to the other. This perspective examines the little things, gestures, symbols, attire, overlooked details that are part of interactions.
Apart from being chaotic and demonstrating to modern nations the power that is in the people, the French Revolution has been said that intellectual fields are “shaped by their social settings”. It is particularly true when it comes to the discipline of Sociology; it has been “derived from that setting”. Now, apart from examining the French Revolution through the lens of the three paradigms, it is important to note that it is an important event with respect to the development of the discipline of Sociology. The French Revolution brought in a series of long political revolutions in 1789 and these were carried over to the 19th century; these were an immediate factor that brought about the rise in sociological theorizing. The impact of these revolutions was enormous in many societies and it resulted in many positive changes. However, early theorists were not attracted to these positive changes; they were attracted to the negative effects of these changes. This is particularly true of theorists in France who were quite disturbed by the disorder and chaos. Thus, they were united, determined “to restore order to society”. But the thinkers varied in this respect. Some extreme thinkers desired to go back to the peaceful and more or less orderly days of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, more sophisticated thinkers knew that social change “made such a return impossible”. So, they sought “to find new bases of order in the societies that had been overturned by the political revolutions of” that time. Now, this issue regarding social order is considered to be a major concern for classical sociological theorists like Durkheim and Comte. To conclude, one would like to hope that this article was useful in understanding the three paradigms and how the French Revolution was critical to the development of sociological theory.
(2020). French Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/france/french revolution#section_1
Cichoski, B., Rice, A., Greenan, P. & Visick, E. (2010). Symbols of the French Revolution. FHSS Mentored Research Conference, 131. Retrieved from https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/fhssconference_studentpub/131
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